Conte carried off the Lukfook Jewellery Cup Handicap (1400m) at Sha Tin this afternoon (Sunday, 16 December), quickening clear of smart handicappers and big money imports to seal a victory that sparkled with high-class potential.
But the rising talent had to share the spotlight with an established star: Zac Purton snared a landmark 900th Hong Kong win in the last and remarked with a playful grin “I told Tony Cruz this week that I’m coming for him now!”
Conte (128lb) has long looked a horse with top level possibilities and that impression held fast as the bay’s raking stride extended down the home straight for a two-length score.
Joao Moreira was the man with an easy hold on the 1.5 favourite’s red reins as he eased past the post in a time of 1m 21.16s (less than a second outside the track record), clocking a final 400m split of 23.26s.
John Size has applied his famed patience with the five-year-old. The 10-time Champion Trainer gave the Starcraft gelding a four-month stretch without a race through the latter part of last season, and then waited from June until November before reintroducing his charge to the fray.
“It was a nice win today; it was just Class 2 but I had to show a little bit of patience to make sure he was up to it when he got to this class. If I’d started a little bit earlier in the season he might not have been up to it because when they go up the grades too fast it can work against them,” he said.
Conte enhanced his lifetime record to six wins from eight starts and took this prize off a career-high rating of 97, suggesting Group race assignments are not too far off.
“I’m not particularly concerned about how high he can go, I’ll take it as it comes,” Size said.
“The horses that keep on winning, you can’t actually hold them back and put a limit on them. That doesn’t make sense.”
Top-weight Citron Spirit (130lb) ran on for second, while one-time G1 galloper Joyful Trinity (125lb) took third.
In behind, a handful of high profile Four-Year-Old Classic Series candidates found things tough on their first Hong Kong race day. Group 1 Rosehill Guineas third Furore (123lb) fared best in seventh, with G3 Jersey Stakes second King Of Hearts (119lb) a solid eighth; G1 Queensland Derby runner-up Heavenly Thought (119lb) came in 10th and Gold Chest (119lb) 11th.
But connections of those potential young stars can take comfort in the fact that last season’s BMW Hong Kong Derby hero Ping Hai Star was only eighth in this very race.
Purton takes five
In Purton dominated the 11-race card.
The Champion Jockey started the day needing five wins to reach 900 in Hong Kong and snagged races three, four, five and eight before hitting the milestone in the last aboard the John Moore-trained Taking Aim.
“I came to Hong Kong hoping to ride one win and here we are over a decade later with 900. It’s very satisfying,” he said.
Douglas Whyte is the rider with the most wins all-time – 1,809 and counting – but Purton is now eyeing the next in line, Cruz’s tally of 946.
“I’ve got him in my sights now,” he said.
But the in-form Australian – now 12 clear of Karis Teetan at the top of the premiership – revealed that he was not expecting to reach 900 today.
“I came here thinking I had a pretty average book of rides. I thought if I had one I’d be happy, and here I am with five on the day. Sometimes you can’t pick it.”
Dennis Yip provided his long-time ally with victories on Glenealy Generals, Hurricane Hunter and Racing Fighter, while trainer Caspar Fownes was the beneficiary of a strong Purton drive on the front-running Po Ching Treasure.
Racing Fighter took Purton to a tantalising 899th win in race eight, the Class 3 Lukfook Jewellery Love Forever Collection Handicap (1200m). The rider earned his fee with a rousting stretch drive that lifted the 5/1 chance to a short-head verdict over 25/1 shot Key Witness.
“This horse has ability but when he joined my stable he was still weak, so I’ve given him time to get his strength up a little bit,” Yip said of the stable transfer. “I gave him more work and he’s taken it step by step – he will stay 1400 (metres) or a mile, he’s not a 1200 horse.”
And of his own form he said, “I try hard!” while of Purton he commented with a grin, “the jockey is in very good form – I will try to give him more.”
Whyte landed a brace thanks to the Chris So-trained Invincible Missile in race two and the grey gelding Monica, trained by Moore, in race seven.
Brazilian ace Silvestre de Sousa, one week on from a G1 brace at the Hong Kong International Races – and with the IJC trophy sitting in his apartment – was at his powerful best to win on Pakistan Friend in race 10, denying Purton and Green Luck by a length and a quarter.
Jockey Derek Leung and trainer Manfred Man were on the mark in race six with Ever Laugh, who wore down the Purton-ridden Romantic Chef close home.